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Douglas_Knight comments on For progress to be by accumulation and not by random walk, read great books - Less Wrong

35 Post author: MichaelVassar 02 March 2010 08:11AM

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Comment author: Douglas_Knight 04 March 2010 03:10:35AM 0 points [-]

Progress in the last 50 years is a non sequitur response to a claim that the situation was dire 50 years ago. At least, if you claim to disagree.

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 03:57:47PM *  -1 points [-]

Unless I misunderstand him, his claim is that there hasn't been clear progress in the field since Darwin. My position is that there has been clear progress in the last 60 years. I concede that progress before that was slim.

Comment author: FAWS 04 March 2010 04:41:17PM 1 point [-]

Still, if the field has actually regressed between Darwin and mid 20th century (by today's standards) without evolutionary biologists of that time being aware of that fact that's evidence that progress in evolutionary biology is not necessarily clear, and reason enough to at least consider the possibility that the field might have regressed in other ways that we are not aware of.

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 09:01:08PM *  1 point [-]

I said progress was stagnant, not regressing. All of Darwin's books have always been widely available and read, so no information was ever lost. Some of Darwin's conjectures were deemphasized, and the biologists of the time were right to do so; they didn't yet have the techniques to prove or disprove them, and mere conjecture should never be foundations of a scientific discipline. They weren't central to the theory anyway, and even Darwin considered them just speculation.

With modern technical know-how, such as radiometric dating and molecular clocks, they've discovered evidence supporting some of Darwin's more difficult-to-prove ideas, such as punctuated equilibrium. Darwin was an exceedingly smart man, so it's no surprise that some of his idle speculation turned out to be accurate. But that's a far cry from modern evolutionists "catching up" with Darwin.

Comment author: FAWS 04 March 2010 09:21:02PM 0 points [-]

I said progress was stagnant, not regressing.

I'm not necessarily trying to conivince you of anything, just interested. Assuming that you are convinced that Bayesian statistics are the correct way to treat uncertainty, would you say that the field of statistics never regressed in that respect because the works of Bayes and Laplace were always around?

All of Darwin's books have always been widely available and read, so no information was ever lost.

That's a pretty good argument for reading the work of the old masters though, isn't it? (Not that you voiced any disagreement with that)

Comment author: ObliqueFault 04 March 2010 11:45:52PM *  2 points [-]

You have me at a disadvantage because I don't know much about the history of statistics, but here is my view. Assuming the core principles of Bayesian statistics were demonstrably effective, if they were widely accepted and then later rejected or neglected for whatever reason, then that would be regression. If Bayes' and Laplace's methods never caught on at all until a long time later, and there were no other significant advances in the field, then that would be stagnation.

By these (admittedly my own) definitions, evolutionary biology didn't regress after Darwin because the only parts of his theory that were neglected were the ones that weren't yet provable. It's as if, theoretically, Bayes came up with a variety of statistical methods, most of which were clearly effective but others were of dubious utility. It wouldn't count as a regression, at least to me, if later generations dropped the dubious methods but kept the useful ones.

That's a pretty good argument for reading the work of the old masters though, isn't it?

I apologize, I haven't made my position clear about this. I think that experts should read the classics as well as modern works in their field. The interested amateur, though, should skip over the classics and go directly to modern thought, unless he or she has more free time than most.